When you hear the word “disability,” what comes to mind? For many people, they imagine someone using a wheelchair, or a group of people speaking to each other in sign language, or a person with a seeing-eye dog crossing the street. However, there are many disabilities out there that are not immediately apparent – you often can’t tell just by looking at someone that they are living with what is known as an “invisible disability.”
Invisible disabilities are typically chronic illnesses and conditions that impair the normal activities of someone’s daily life. They can be mental conditions—depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, PTSD, sleep disorders, ADD/ADHD, autism and dyslexia, for example—or physical (though still unseen) conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic fatigue and chronic pain.
The CDC has determined that more than 25 percent of Americans live with at least one disability, invisible or otherwise, yet many people with invisible disabilities don’t self-identify to their employer for a number of reasons:
Fear of being stereotyped. Example: An employee with depression being left out of a team project because they’ll “just bring the rest of us down”
Fear of being treated differently. Example: A manager offering unsolicited therapeutic advice for an employee with PTSD
Fear of being identified solely by that disability. Example: A person asking their colleague, “Are you talking about ADHD Angela or regular Angela?”
Fear of not being believed. Example: An employee with chronic pain requiring an ergonomic chair and their coworkers thinking they’re lying in order to get nicer desk furniture
Just as businesses and organizations need to provide accommodations for their employees with a visible disability, such as accessible restrooms, braille signage and digitally accessible internal communications, it’s critical to ensure that those with invisible disabilities are similarly supported.
There are several best practices for supporting employees with invisible disabilities:
Develop a comprehensive disability inclusion program. Establish a Chief Accessibility Officer and a Chief Disability Officer (these can be titles, not necessarily a full position) to be someone that individuals with disabilities can go to for assistance. Take time to educate yourself and your colleagues on various invisible disabilities through formal trainings, and openly commit to creating a safe and inclusive workplace for everyone. Encourage the establishment of disability employee resource groups (ERGs) that provide a welcoming and supportive community.
Offer reasonable accommodations without demanding proof of disability. Employees may be more likely to self-identify their disabilities if they feel supported, which will allow them to seek helpful accommodations that increase their productivity and comfort. Remember, it is illegal to ask an employee to disclose whether they have a disability, so it is key to create an environment where they feel comfortable bringing it up on their own. Some examples of these accommodations include an employer changing their office’s “no animals” policy to allow an employee to bring in their service animal, a manager allowing an employee to work flexible hours so they can attend medical appointments, or a supervisor providing feedback in writing rather than verbally for an employee who communicates better through written materials.
Provide support through allyship. A disability ally is someone who strongly supports their colleagues with disabilities in the workplace. Foster an environment where effective allyship can take place, such as a disabilities ERG where allies are welcome, or setting a zero-tolerance rule for inappropriate comments or behaviors. Have a company policy that spreads positive messaging about disabilities from executives and managers, commits to disability inclusion throughout the workplace, empowers supervisors and managers to grant accommodations, and supports inclusive and accessible programming.
Being an inclusive workplace for those with disabilities is the not only the morally right thing for a business to do, it’s also the financially smart thing to do. According to the “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage” report, companies that adopt best practices for hiring and supporting people with disabilities see 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher economic profit margins than those that do not. Help your organization reap these benefits and more by starting your own disability inclusion program – AOE can assist every step of the way.